Battle lines are being drawn at city hall concerning a councillor’s ability to advocate on behalf of outside agencies looking to access taxpayer money.
At last week’s meeting Coun. Elaine MacDonald raised some eyebrows when she stood up and argued the Agape Centre on Fifth Street West deserved some municipal money by way of a grant program that would allow it to make some improvements to its façade.
Agape had been turned down on previously for the money, and was within a hair’s breadth of getting rejected again before city council deferred a decision on the matter so that it could get more information.
Says here they are still unlikely to get the money, at least via the grant program.
But MacDonald’s comments raised eyebrows around the table. Not only is she a city councillor, but she also sits as a member of the Agape Centre’s board of directors. And it’s not a council appointment – councillors are often seconded to outside committees and agencies as representatives of the city.
Not this time – MacDonald is sitting as an Agape member on her own accord.
Some, including her fellow councillors, are suggesting this constitutes a conflict of interest when it comes to debating council motions that directly benefit the agency via taxpayer dollars.
Word is a motion is being drafted and already has the support of a handful around the table who want to keep councillors who sit on such boards, like MacDonald, from taking part in (and voting on) matters that involve spending taxpayer money.
I’m told it’s likely to be a new business item on the next council agenda which means two things: it will be voted on right away and the debate (read: argument) will be a whopper.
MacDonald, for one, is looking forward to the debate. She claims she’s done nothing wrong by sitting as an Agape board member and then advocating on behalf of that agency as a city councillor to get taxpayer money.
She told me Monday night she’s not receiving any payment or compensation for taking the stance she has when it comes to supporting Agape’s cause. She added the circumstances would be different if she, or a member of her family (for example) were employed by Agape.
There are at least enough councillors in support of a motion to silence MacDonald to get the debate started. How successful they will be remains to be seen.
Some long-time members of council are concerned about how they can get a motion passed that essentially muzzles a colleague concerning a matter of public debate.
Councillors are paid to make decisions on our behalf – it’s tough to keep them under wraps, even if you really want to.
Is MacDonald right or wrong? It’s a tough one. At first glance she’s got a point – MacDonald has not benefitted one iota from advocating on behalf of Agape Centre. At least not financially. But an agency she represents just might.
And the real question is should outside agencies lucky enough to count a city councillor as one of their own be allowed to exploit that to access taxpayer money?
How many other agencies in the city do good work – just like the Agape Centre – and have no city councillor sitting on their board? The answer: plenty.
Is it fair that Agape gets an automatic yes vote (or at least the perception of same) every time a debate that benefits the agency takes place at city hall?
No – and that’s why the motion being considered for the next council meeting should pass.
Not one person should discount the good work Agape does – least of all a guy who is lucky enough to have voided the breadline all his life.
But in an era when whistleblowers, court cases and in-camera meeting agendas have dominated the headlines at times, council should be going out of its way to appear transparent and without favouritism.
I can’t blame MacDonald for having the passion for the less-fortunate in our community she so enthusiastically possesses. It’s what makes it so difficult to disagree with her position. At first I kind of sympathized with the tack she is taking.
But as I put more thought into this issue, it left me wondering what the perception might be among the public.
And while she is in the spotlight right now, MacDonald is not alone. In the past some councillors have pointed an accusing finger at Denis Carr and his decision to cast votes on Heart of the City matters, while also administering the program.
Once again, a person could argue Carr doesn't directly benefit by sitting at the council table and making decisions but others suggest it raises too many eyebrows in an era when doing just that is too much.